Phil Thompson, Summer Arts master of accents, says it’s likely that you, too, have a keen ear for the ways people talk differently than you — even if you don’t realize it.
Humans are at their most fundamental small-group primates with an uncanny ability to detect the slightest variations in others. It’s a helpful trait when figuring out whom to trust.
“We are very, very good at detecting outsiders,” says Thompson, a professional actor and founder of Knight-Thompson Speechwork (KTS), a skills-based approach to training actors for detailed and nuanced accent work.
Which is why I think I had a small but nagging problem with Emma Thompson’s performance as Hillary Clinton in the 1998 film “Primary Colors.” I couldn’t quite put my finger on it when I watched the film for the first time, but there was something just a tiny bit “off” in her otherwise exemplary performance. She didn’t sound a bit English, but there was something too perfect and almost sterile about her American accent that rang in me a linguistic warning bell.
Thompson’s own “regular” speaking voice is golden-toned and smooth — the vocal version of expensive hard candy –and with a hint of crisp, wear-a-tux-on-opening-night elegance.
You’ll get the opportunity to hear more from Thompson (the accent coach, not the actress) at Summer Arts at Fresno State as part of “Accent Olympics: Building Skills for Accent Flexibility” (7 p.m. Monday, July 9, John Wright Theatre, tickets are $15 regular, $12 students and seniors). He’s an instructor in the “Acting in Accent” class. You’ll get a chance to watch students in the class perform in a student showcase (11 a.m. Saturday, July 14, John Wright Theatre).
To me, it sounds like one of the most intriguing lectures at this season’s festival. I’ve always been interested in accents, so I caught up with Thompson — again, just to make clear here, the accent expert, not the star of “Nanny McPhee” — for a sneak preview and to pop a few of the accent-related questions I’ve always wanted to ask. A few tidbits from the interview:
Everyone has an accent. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that if you have a “standard” American accent (reinforced by newscasters and Hollywood), and not one of the prominent American regional dialects very noticeable if you’re say, from the other side of the country, that you are somehow “accent free.” Far from it. The American accent is instantly recognizable outside our borders. I was reminded of this on my recent European trip, where an Australian woman in my tour group with one of the thickest Aussie accents I’ve ever heard told me that I’m the one who had the accent, not her. When I travel overseas, it usually takes me just three or four days to start “hearing” my American accent (and wincing a little because it sounds so flat and twangy).
Accents are complicated things. Is your accent based on where you were born? How your parents talked? Where you went to school, and whether you were one of the cool kids? Your own conscious determination of the way you want to speak in relation to the people around you? The answers: All of these reasons, and probably more. Thompson was born in Iowa — his mother was from South Dakota, his father from Ireland — and knew he didn’t want to blend in with the farmers around him. (With his interest in theater, he considered himself an outsider in high school.) So he likely speaks differently than others in his hometown. “Every human being makes those decisions,” he says. An even better example is comparing Thompson’s father and uncle. After living for a short time in London as boys, they ended up as adults with vastly different accents: Thompson’s dad with a thick Irish brogue, and his uncle with a posh, upper-class sensibility.
When it comes to accents, you shouldn’t try too hard. That’s probably one of the things that i noticed about Emma Thompson’s effort in “Primary Colors,” Phil Thompson tells me. And it was likely her “R’s” that tripped her up. If you’re too precise and crisp, you can end up sounding a little detached and sterile. On the other hand, there are some actors who truly impress, accent-wise: Jamie Bamber in “Battlestar Galactica.” (It was years before I found out he was English) Damian Lewis in “Homeland.” Cate Blanchett in, well, just about anything.
Some directors care a lot more about correct accents than others. Phil Thompson gets a little annoyed when a director says something like, “Let’s do light accents in this play.” (But he’ll still take the paycheck. He’s an actor, after all.) “Usually I find that when a director says something like that, what he or she is really saying is ‘Do an accent that doesn’t suck.’ “
Given the choice, of course, Thompson will opt for an expertly crafted accent that radiates authenticity. If you’re watching “The Importance of Being Earnest,” you want those “cucumber sandwiches” to be pronounced with the precision of an English drawing room.
Is it easier for a British actor to do an American accent — or for an American actor to do a British accent? This has always been a burning question for me. Thompson laughs when I ask it. The answer is complicated. British actors tend to be more serious about accents in their training. And British culture tends to fret a lot more about its language (and culture) being subsumed into the dominant American cultural monolith. At the same time, as an actor, remember that you can’t be too sterile in your approach, which might give Americans an advantage. Still, Thompson is scrupulous about not giving me a definitive response, “Have I successfully evaded your question?” he asks. He’s not only an actor but a diplomat. And he can sound like one, too.
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